science of us

The Long History of Sniffing Lavender to Reduce Anxiety

For all the griefs and pains of the head and brain. Photo: Florilegius/SSPL/Getty Images

In a paper published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, researchers found that smelling lavender measurably reduced anxiety in mice (not people, yet), comparable to the effects of taking diazepam. Or, as the New York Times puts it, for the mice, “sniffing linalool, an alcohol component of lavender odor, was kind of like popping a Valium.” And: “Relief from anxiety could be triggered just by inhaling through a healthy nose.”

There’s a long history of lavender being used to combat anxiety and other feelings of distress. In 1551, for instance, naturalist William Turner, in his nature guide Herball, wrote that “flowers of lavender, quilted in a cap, comfort the brain very well.” And herbalist John Parkinson, in his 1640 Theatrum Botanicum, wrote that lavender is of “especiall good use for all griefes and paines of the head and brain,” as well as for “the tremblings and passions of the heart” — and not just drunk as a tonic but “even applied to the temples, or to the nostrils to be smelt unto.” In her 1931 classic Modern Herbal, herbalist Maud Grieve concurs: “In some cases of mental depression and delusions, oil of Lavender proves a real service, and a few drops rubbed on the temple will cure nervous headache.” (Grieve also describes lavender-water as an antidote for “languor and weakness of the nerves” as well as for “lowness of spirits.”)

See also, in modern times: the social-media sharing of posts that recommend lavender essential oil for everything from dandruff and acne to insomnia and lion taming.

Also worth noting is that in the Victorian language of flowers, lavender is often considered a symbol of distrust. In his 1825 book Floral Emblems, horticulturist Henry Phillips writes that that this is because lavender “is frequently used to cover disagreeable odours.”

In the spirit of anxiety-reduction, I brought my own small bottle of lavender essential oil in with me to work, and I’ve been enjoying some periodic drags. And while quilting lavender into a cap initially seemed like something to turn into a joke, it now sounds genuinely appealing. Maybe into something knitted, too, like a hat brim or a cowl. Or throughout one of these unusual coats.

The Long History of Sniffing Lavender to Relieve Anxiety